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Taxpayers keep giving to Bucks in sweetheart concert venue deal

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — FPC Live is angling to land a sweetheart deal with the Milwaukee Bucks that would allow the Madison-based mega concert promoter to build two concert venues on prime real estate in downtown Milwaukee’s bustling Deer District.

The proposed $50 million event center would directly compete with the multiple concert venues in the district, including the storied Pabst Theatre, Turner Hall and the Miller High Life Theatre — on land paid for by Wisconsin taxpayers.

A source familiar with the deal asserts “FPC will not be bringing any new shows, they will simply take shows away from the Wisconsin Center District and other venues in town.”

Big Bucks deal

FPC is part of the Live Nation Entertainment-backed Frank Productions corporate family, the largest live entertainment and venue operator in the country. It’s led by some big-time donors to the Democratic Party and their candidates.

Under the proposal, FPC Live would enter into a long-term land lease of former BMO Harris Bradley Center property now owned by the NBA franchise.

The Bucks got the 5.9 acre parcel after the state of Wisconsin — thanks to its taxpayers — paid off the remaining $10 million debt on the old BMO Harris Bradley Center and transferred the deed to the Wisconsin Center District (WCD), the government body that built and operates downtown’s convention and exhibition center, the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, and Miller High Life Theatre. WCD then transferred the land to the Milwaukee Bucks for free.

The land was part of the 2015 deal that includes $250 million in taxpayer money for the Fiserv Forum, the half-billion dollar, multi-purpose arena that is home to the NBA team.

FPC Live’s proposed joint venture with the Bucks, if approved by the city, would open in late 2023. The two venues would include an 800-capacity ballroom and a 4,000-capacity hall.

“We are excited to further enhance the relationship between FPC Live and the Milwaukee Bucks with the addition of these two spectacular venues,” Michael Belot, Senior Vice President of Bucks Ventures and Development said in a press release announcing the plan in May. “Deer District serves as a destination that’s redefining downtown Milwaukee, and bringing two new venues to Deer District will continue to solidify it as Milwaukee’s premiere location for entertainment.”

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson sounded all-in on the FPC’s plan. The more the merrier, he said.

“I want more tourism dollars spent in Milwaukee. I want more employment in our hospitality industry right here in Milwaukee,” Johnson said following the announcement. “I want more positive activity down here downtown in the Deer District and throughout Milwaukee. And I want an even greater number of entertainment options in Milwaukee as well. With today’s announcement that sounds like exactly where we’re headed.”

Competition killer?

But too many concert venues could cannibalize a Milwaukee concert scene battered and bruised by the pandemic and government-ordered lockdowns and capacity limits.

Located on the northeast section of the old Bradley Center site, the complex would directly compete with the 4,000-capacity Miller High Life Theatre and Panther Arena (12,700 capacity) across State Street to the south. And FPC’s concert stops will vie for shows and show-goers against Turner Hall (1,000 capacity) across the street to the east. The nearly 1,300-capacity Pabst Theatre is nearby in the 100 block of Wells St., and the 2,500-capacity Riverside Theatre on Wisconsin Ave., and the Rave/Eagles Club with eight independent performance spaces are within easy walking distance.

The original general planned development for the area stated any development on the Bradley Center property should be “sympathetic” to Milwaukee landmark Turner Hall, the closest music venue. It also notes buildings should be a minimum of 4 stories and a maximum of 20. FPC’s plan does not appear to get anywhere close to the maximum height requirement. The city and state would lose tax revenue by not using the additional air space for condominiums, hotels or other vertical development.

“The taxpayers paid off this land and gave it to the Bucks for free, and now they’re going to work with FPC/Live Nation to build two concert venues to compete with local venues,” said a source in the live music scene.

Questionable COVID cash

Frank Productions has benefited immensely from taxpayers of late. The company secured nearly $20 million in grants through the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Program COVID aid grants. Half of the money went to its national-based promotion subsidiary National Shows 2. The company got the money despite bill language prohibiting taxpayer funds going to publicly traded companies such as Live Nation, the corporate parent of Ticketmaster which also owns a majority share of Frank Productions.

Still, “the parameters set by Congress and the Small Business Administration, which disbursed the funds, allowed several companies in which Live Nation has significant investments to receive grants,” the Washington Post reported.

The grants do not appear to have violated the law or any rules set by the SBA, but the investigation “shows how a large company with stakes in hundreds of smaller businesses could, while following the rules, reap a benefit that some legislators didn’t want. And it shows that how agencies implement a law can be just as important as the way it is written by Congress.”

Gov. Tony Evers also passed out a $395,000 COVID-19 Live Music and Entertainment Venue grant to Frank Production’s parent, Live Nation Worldwide Inc., which also operates Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy. It was the largest award in the $15 million grant program, funded through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Frank friends

Frank Productions has some powerful friends in Madison, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., including U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Top managers for the company, which also owns the Sylvee, Majestic, and High Noon Saloon in Madison, have given more than $18,000 to the Madison Democrat’s campaign, according to campaign finance reports.

The Sylvee was the site of an October 2018 fundraiser for Baldwin, with Wisconsin-based band Bon Iver performing in the 2,500-capacity concert venue. Records show campaign donations ran $1,000 in the Sylvee’s Platinum balcony, $500 in the Gold Balcony, $200 in the Badger Balcony, and $50 in the standing-room only general admission section. Each was sold out. FPC co-presidents donated personally the day of the show.

Alex Lasry, the son of Milwaukee Bucks co-owner and billionaire hedge fund manager Marc Lasry, took time off from his executive position with the NBA team in a failed run for U.S. Senate. The Wisconsin Democrat dropped out days before this month’s primary election.

Frank Production’s leadership ties to Democrats, liberal candidates and causes run deep. Joel Plant, the company’s CEO, previously served as Assistant/Deputy Mayor in far left Madison from 2005 – 2010. He also was chief of staff under disgraced former Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn. Madison uber liberal Alderman Tag Evers sold his company, True Endeavors, to Frank Productions.

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2 thoughts on “Taxpayers keep giving to Bucks in sweetheart concert venue deal

  • Out with the old in with the new… they need to tear all that old garbage down… The only location that needs to be standing is the Pabst theater… By the way they are in on the other theater planned in the new district they are designing and operating. So the congestion argument is Dead on arrival. Milwaukee is headed to the 21st century catch up or get left behind.

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